Marc Lynch

Eye on Anbar: did the provincial elections make things worse?

I’m a bit confused by the rapturous reception across the board of the Iraqi provincial elections. I’m as delighted as everyone that the Iraqi provincial elections went off without major violence. But as I’ve been warning for many long months now, the dangerous part of the provincial elections comes when those groups who expected to ...

I’m a bit confused by the rapturous reception across the board of the Iraqi provincial elections. I’m as delighted as everyone that the Iraqi provincial elections went off without major violence. But as I’ve been warning for many long months now, the dangerous part of the provincial elections comes when those groups who expected to win find out they didn’t. Early signs are extremely concerning — Anbar is under curfew after threats of violence, Diyala’s outcome may signal a rapid escalation of Arab-Kurdish tensions, and that’s not even looking at Baghdad.

First, a caveat. It’s too early to offer any detailed analysis, even if that hasn’t stopped everyone else. Most of the instant analysis should be treated with caution, including the claims of great gains for Maliki or the rejection of religious parties which have grabbed early headlines. The Iraqi Higher Election Commission has not certified any results and all actors are furiously spinning and trying to game expectations. I have seen claims of victory in various provinces from every major competing group… which can’t all be right. When actual results are announced and certified, I’ll discuss.

The only result that the IHEC has certified is the surprisingly low turnout — only 51%, significantly less than in the much-maligned 2005 election even with much increased Sunni participation. That should be a sobering number to those who have put such great emphasis on these provincial elections as a transformative moment.

That said, I want to focus on Anbar.

One of the main reasons that the U.S. pushed so hard for the provincial elections in the first place was as a reward for the Awakenings groups which had cooperated with the U.S. against al-Qaeda. For over a year the Anbar Salvation Council and various tribal groupings have been engaged in a nasty political battle with the Iraqi Islamic Party. The IIP controlled the provincial council after most Sunnis boycotted the election, and the Anbar Salvation Council wanted power for itself as a reward for its service against AQI. It almost came to violence at several points — but it was always tamped down (in part) by the U.S. pointing to the elections as the moment for power to be transferred peacefully and legitimately.

I kept warning, publicly and privately, that they might not actually win those elections: that tribal influence may be exaggerated, that the Awakenings were internally divided, that the Islamic Party could draw on state resources. But I was told again and again by military sources and others that this was impossible, that the tribal groups controlled the streets, and that the IIP had no chance.

Well, early returns suggest that the Islamic Party has won at least a plurality in Anbar. Turnout was only 40%. Ahmed Abu Risha, formerly of the Anbar Salvation Council and now of the Iraqi Awakenings Conference [corrected], has been telling everyone who will listen that there was massive electoral fraud in Anbar, and that if the IIP is declared the winner the province will look "like Darfur." Another leader, Hamed al-Hayes of the Anbar Salvation Council, is warning that if the IIP is declared the winner his men will turn the province into a graveyard for the IIP and its collaborators. The Iraqi military has declared a curfew to prevent outbreaks of violence.

 Most observers have responded to various concerns about the elections that the important thing is that the elections are seen as legitimate. That’s right — but also the problem. The Awakenings know that they won, so anything else is by definition illegitimate. And if they are now declared the victors, it will look like the IHEC caved in to threats of force. Either way, it won’t look good. The faster the IHEC can certify results and short-circuit the pre-emptive spin and gaming by the various parties, the better. [*]

 These post-election struggles are going to be something to watch very carefully. Which shouldn’t surprise anyone.

[ * ] This paragraph was accidentally left out of the original post; I’ve put it back in. Apologies for any confusion. While I’m here, let me add a quick update — Abu Risha’s Motamar al-Sahwat al-Iraq website is now leading with allegations of electoral fraud, while the Islamic Party’s site is leading with the claim of victory and assurances that the Awakenings will be given a role. But as noted in the second paragraph above, none of these results are final and both partiees are gaming the results. The IIP’s claimed victory may well disappear as the IHEC looks at the results. But if the IIP holds on, it will be a major upset and the political implications are tough to anticipate.

MORNING UPDATE: results from Anbar remain hotly contested. But Ahmed Abu Risha told al-Hayat in a phone interview that the preliminary numbers show that his Awakenings list took second place behind the Islamic Party’s list, and that it wasn’t even particularly close: 56,000 votes to 36,000. If those numbers hold up, that’s a dismal showing by Abu Risha and would seem to be difficult to overturn as the IHEC reviews.

WEDNESDAY UPDATE:  Now the Iraqi Higher Electoral Commission is signaling that it may reverse the reported Anbar province results in the face of allegations of fraud and fears of violence over the unexpected results. Either option may now have been poisoned: seating the IIP will likely be seen as rewarding fraud, seating the Awakenings Conference or Anbar Salvation Council will likely be seen as rewarding the threat of violence.   Good for the Post to pick up on this important story.  

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